“Should have left earlier,” I kept telling myself. With 15 minutes left for my train’s departure and Chandigarh roads not allowing speeding above 60 kmph, a further loss on an already loss-making tour seemed inevitable.
The receptionist who was also the owner kept trying to push his other properties in Punjab even as I struggled to get a cab. The driver when he finally arrived informed me that there was a strike. If they were caught driving there would be severe consequences. He couldn’t even drop me inside the station for fear of being seen. I still made a run for it but Indian Railways is never late when you want it to be.
Before I even reached the platform, a coolie said; almost laughing, “Shatabdi to gayi!” I sat down on the bench, panting, angry and about to give up. This was the second train I had missed that week and now reaching in time for the third show that was not going to break even seemed difficult. Some beggars and a Eunuch pass by, their demeanor changes as soon as rejection is confirmed. Even pleas to our more generous nature are in the end just routines. In almost all our actions, there is money involved as the final incentive or punishment.
The whole world runs on so many overlapping conditions that conflict is inevitable. The only thing you can do is take the sting out by rising up the social hierarchy. Money is the continuation of violence by other means. The only reason we don’t see as much outright violence and war anymore is because it is not as profitable as it used to be. Beyond data, Wall Street can now simply make money out of money. The greatest magic trick ever. But greed is limitless so wealth and food never get redistributed to at least eliminate extreme poverty. And even if it did, strife wouldn’t go away. Middle-income families of today have access to luxuries only royalty had till a few decades ago. But happiness is still just as rare.
The amount of freedom, safety and privacy your are allowed to live with is constantly being fine-tuned, not so high that it raises awareness and not so low that it causes revolts. On a routine day you would be too caught up to notice how predatory all our systems are. But on a bad day, it becomes all too apparent. A negative spiral; of course, cannot aspire to absolute truth. But it does present an opportunity to see your role in this vicious ongoing competition we call culture. And if nothing else, it makes for good stand-up material.
The only real quality of the food we eat outside is that it is edible. That it doesn’t make you sick immediately. The air we breathe is killing us slowly and we have to pay for every sip of clean water. The biggest body builders in the world get crippled or even drop dead before their 50s. The news increasingly shows us everything other than facts. Regulatory bodies are owned and run by the very companies they are supposed to be regulating. Pharma companies have as many if not more lawyers than scientists. Our heroes and artists may be the nicest, most erudite people in real life but on screen they keep dancing like monkeys, acting in the most obnoxious ways — nothing of beauty or value.
The common thread in all of these open secrets — is profits. And there is no end to how much you can make of it.
I would still like to believe that a majority of people are meek if not nice. Which is why they do jobs, menial or otherwise. Any attempt at doing something bigger or on your own is fraught with moral dilemmas besides the obvious structural challenges. Something that I found out first hand when I left my job to pursue stand-up. Even as a bright employee, you can always claim that you were simply following company policy, even while pulling the trigger. As an entrepreneur every step poses a moral question that you have to answer and live with yourself. Most start-ups don’t get past the boutique stage because to play in the big leagues you have to play by the rules of incumbents which at its core is simply: Might is Right!
Up to 30% of items purchased online in India are returned for refunds. This is a combination of bogus sellers sending counterfeit products, consumers trying to pull a fast one and the platform itself being in such a hurry to expand that it doesn’t audit its sellers. Similar to Social Media only clamping down on hate speech when it is pointed out and users themselves reveling in tribalism. There is no innocent party here. As a small business trying to make an honest buck, how would you have any faith left in the market? You either give up or start adjusting to fit the market’s level of corruption. Either cut corners or find a way to raise sinful levels of capital, or both. If you don’t do it, someone else will, might as well get your hands dirty.
The only thing as inevitable as entropy is corruption. And we all know it because we are the very people returning a party dress after wearing it once and demanding a free pizza after giving a misleading address. That is why we keep talking about virtues and human rights. It is not out of hope, it is out of guilt. In a better world we wouldn’t have to. It is not even about class conflict. Most people would take the same decisions if the tables were turned. Efficiency is a mathematical pursuit that leaves no room for emotions, especially kindness. Which is why most organizations from corporations to governments end up behaving like the most psychopathic individuals who run them, their primary purpose being ensuring their own continuity at any cost. Because; again, if they don’t do it someone else will.
If at all such thoughts surface, we brush them aside as idealist or not practical. But unless you confront them you are doomed to be an unconscious part of this predatory system. The struggle between poetry and power is the oldest in the world. Power always wins but the goal of poetry is to at least make it difficult for those in power to sleep at night. Power will take us to Mars but you will still be listening to break-up songs; at less than half the gravity.
There are no sweeping solutions, neither socialism nor non-violence. But the first step is recognizing the darker side within every individual, from the nerd who wants revenge to the devouring mother. Is not the way we talk, think and behave largely violent or at least confrontational? Aren’t most of our actions, intentions and laments ultimately from a selfish place? Even at a funeral, your tears are a reflection on your own mortality and unfulfilled dreams, the deceased is just a mirror.
One of the simplest yet hardest facts to accept is that being a victim doesn’t automatically make you a nice person. All indigenous people who were victims of colonization were extremely brutal themselves, many had hierarchical societies and all of them had slaves. This includes African tribes that enslaved other African tribes and even sold them off on the cross-Atlantic trade. Just that they did not have guns. Almost every tool of development has also been a tool of cruelty and destruction. If man hadn’t saddled the first horse I wouldn’t be writing this blog today. But it’s important to know ultimate causes and not get caught in the drama of individual life struggles.
All the good and all the evil in the world is manifested by our mind. It’s all in there, together. All the stories of heroes and villains are just externalizing this inherent dichotomy. The Nobel Peace Prize is named after the guy who invented dynamite. And the surviving members of Pink Floyd are still fighting bitterly, 50 years after releasing perhaps the most beautiful album of all time. There are no role models left, maybe there were none to begin with. Once the crutch of religion is taken away, there will be no bad guys left, the only option being to confront the darkness which is within all of us.
Development is an unstoppable cascade of near-sighted decisions and bad trade-offs. The food we eat is so poor because we are wired to gorge on fatty and sugary treats. Entertainment is so obnoxious because we are primed to notice vulgarity more than depth. We have no role-models because honest people cannot survive in systems co-opted by businesses and politicians. Things cannot be any other way, but you can.
You either participate in the madness, playing it as a game without identifying with it or you exit as much as you can. Being an unconscious cog in the global factory is not an option. Every act of cruelty resonates across centuries in a cycle of vendetta harvested by power brokers. I would like to believe that no emotionally healthy person would want to contribute to this cycle. You opt out not from any sense of superiority but as an act of humility that arises naturally from a mind that is healthy and secure.
Mine was not, at least not at Chandigarh station. The next train was half an hour later and it was empty. The TC still charged me a hefty amount that I was told to pay in cash to a man who was tailing him. No receipts, no thank yous. Soon after, Railway cops came in checking bags randomly on some vague tip. It is as if civility can only be maintained at gun-point over a series of quid pro quos; and even that breaks down very quickly in a traffic jam.
As the train hurtled towards Delhi, the last stop on my ill-fated tour, I couldn’t even feel sorry for myself. The layers of privilege I am riding on wouldn’t allow it, even on a bad day. It is very easy to count one’s blessings in this country, especially if you are aware of how the caste system continues to work in your favor. The compartment was rather tense as some men were accusing the cops of only profiling bachelors even as they messily went through their bags. If the old couple on the adjacent seat who went unchecked were actually carrying any contraband it would be quite the web-series twist. It got so heated at one point that I considered going to the washroom and chilling there for the remainder of the journey. In the midst of this chaos, an old blind lady with shaky hands came through selling socks. Explaining that she makes these herself so they may be a little rough around the edges. It was compelling enough for me and even the bachelors to make a purchase, while being frisked! Even the cops waited to let her finish the transaction. My eyes welled up, the old couple didn’t budge though.
We are all trapped in the prisons of our minds but thank heavens for empathy that allows us at least a glimpse of other people’s pain. And that perhaps is the only hope.
“Should have left earlier…”
- Punit Pania